We’ve seen this movie before in which innocents are caught in a Middle East spiral. In 1988, the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft over the Gulf with the loss of all 290 lives on board. This episode is emblazoned on Iranian consciousness.
We are now well into a season of unforeseen consequences in a high-octane security environment across the Middle East in which various state and non-state actors are plotting their responses and counter-responses to latest developments.
Debate will persist about whether Qassem Soleimani, as the godfather of extremist groups across the region, including terrorist organisations, deserved his fate.
The bigger question, however, is whether his assassination will contribute to a lessening of tensions in a region primed for further conflict, or whether it will make a bad situation worse.
As William Burns and Jake Sullivan wrote in a useful commentary for the Carnegie Endowment: “One of the iron laws of foreign policy is that just because you can do something, or just because it’s morally defensible, doesn’t make it a smart thing to do.’’
Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama passed on opportunities to kill Soleimani for reasons of prudence.
Arguments that such a dramatic intervention will improve chances of a resumption of negotiations on an Iran nuclear deal appear fanciful.
In the absence of meaningful negotiations, including an easing of sanctions, Iran will almost certainly accelerate its nuclear program.
As a consequence, the world faces the terrible possibility of a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region with all the risks that would be inherent in proliferation on this sort of scale. Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be among those joining the race.
What is also in the offing are further retaliations by Iran against US interests. These will most likely be carried out by its proxies. More shoes will drop.
Trump appears to have chosen the most extreme option to retaliate against Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq, in which an American contractor was killed. Pentagon officials reportedly were stunned the President elected to kill the equivalent, in American terms, of the second most influential figure in his administration, whomever that might be. Trump went ahead and ordered the mission anyway, citing intelligence reports that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on Americans.
This is where the Iraq war experience is relevant to any decisions the Morrison government takes regarding Australian commitments in the Middle East. This includes escalation.
Like it or not, Australia’s deployment of about 300 military trainers in Iraq and personnel in the Gulf, means we are joined at the hip to the US presence. If America stays, we stay. If America goes we go. Let’s not forget America and its “coalition of the willing allies”, led by Britain, Australia and Spain, went to war in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of fabricated intelligence.
In 2020, America is again citing credible intelligence to justify a dramatic intervention.
As far as we know, such “credible” intelligence – if it exists at all – has not been shared with Australia under the so-called “five eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangements among allies. Nor, for that matter, has this information been made available to America’s elected representatives, judging by an adverse reaction to a classified Washington briefing. These are the sorts of issues the national security committee of cabinet should be pondering.
Given all his other political problems over the mismanagement of the government’s response to the bushfire crisis, the last thing Morrison needs is to be caught up in a wag-the-dog scenario in the Middle East. This would not be a diversion that would serve his political interests, or those of the country.
Tony Walker is a former Middle East correspondent for The Financial Times.
Tony Walker writes on politics, North America and the Middle East. He was formerly the Australian Financial Review’s international editor.